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Closing the gap
How to translate our resources into positive influence

By Trita Parsi and Alex Patico
June 7, 2002
The Iranian

The passing of the new border security bill (H.R. 3525, S 1618 and S 1749) has sent shockwaves throughout the Iranian-American community. The new bill, that was passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, may adversely impact our community's collective interest including restricting the ability of Iranians to visit their families in America. From our perspective at National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), the questions our community should be asking are how this could have happened, how we can protect our interests and freedom in the future, and what constructive measures can be taken now in order to minimize the negative effects of this bill.

Iranian-Americans have achieved extraordinary levels of professional and economic success in the United States. A stroll through America life reveals an indelible Iranian-American stamp. Visit any major American university, hospital or investment bank and you will find Iranian-American professors, doctors, and bankers making contributions to the education, health, and economic welfare of our country.

Our success has, however, mostly been on an individual basis; we have not achieved the same accomplishments as a community. Since America is built on communities, we have as a result lacked the ability to translate our resources into positive influence on our surroundings, again, as a community.

Up till now, this situation may not have been viewed as an imminent problem. But two recent events have changed much of our community's thinking. First, the atrocities of September 11 made Iranian-Americans realize their vulnerability. For three weeks, despite our success and wealth, many feared that the black days of the hostage crisis might be relived. Fortunately, that did not happen, but it made us realize our helplessness in the face of such a possibility.

The passing of the "Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001", however, may prove to be the straw that broke the camel's back. It showed what problems our passivity and non-participation can create for us as a community. There is, probably for the first time in twenty years, a consensus in our community against HR 3525 since it may result in a complete ban on visas for Iranian nationals. These events have made the need for the Iranian community to advance its interest as a community painfully clear.

What can be done today?

While our focus must to a large extent be on long-term solutions, we must not neglect the pressing needs of today. The President has now signed the Enhanced Border Security Act. The next step is for the State Department, the Justice Department and the INS to decide how the law shall be implemented. At this stage, the most constructive measures our community can take seem to be to consult these departments and ensure that the negative effects of the new regulations are minimized. Community organizations would be wise to turn their focus to the Executive branch and the bureaucracy. Alternatively, the language of Section 306 may be able to be made more lenient through an amendment to an entirely new bill. All these options should be explored by our community organizations, as a step towards greater focus on high-effect but low-visibility measures.

But how could this bill get passed? Long-term measures are needed in order to develop the circumstances that will allow the self-representation of our community. Many organizations have put up a brave fight against the Enhanced Border Security Act. Most prominent amongst these are The Persian Club at MIT, and community leaders such as Mozhgan Mojab of the Persian Watch Cat and Professor Mohammad Ala of Iranians for International Cooperation, who have organized impressive petition drives.

Unfortunately, these impressive efforts came in at too late a stage in the process. Also, the effectiveness of petitions has declined dramatically as a result of the ease with which they now, through the internet, can be organized and launched. Today, thanks to the internet, a petition can gather ten-thousand signatures worldwide in a couple of hours. But this lower threshold works as a two-edged sword; the ease with which petitions can be launched has caused a depreciation of their value and effectiveness. More and more, advocacy groups in Washington are resorting to phone-campaigns and other ways of pressure in which constituents only are allowed to participate in, since petitions and internet advocacy are high-visibility but low-impact instruments.

NIAC's role

But the main reasons for our community's inability to live up to its full potential are structural and not rooted in our community organizations' methods and approaches. There are certain prerequisites that need to be met in order for a community to be able to act as a community, and to be able to safeguard its in the United States. NIAC's mission is to, through long-term measures, promote Iranian American participation at all levels of American civic life in order to enable our community to translate its resources into positive influence.

A community must have the ability to mobilize its members in order to translate its resources into influence. In order to mobilize people, information regarding the whereabouts of community members and organizations must be readily available. Unlike some communities, the Iranian-American community lacks natural focal points such as synagogues or churches. There is no entity today in the United States that has comprehensive information about the whereabouts of our community members. NIAC is creating a comprehensive database of our community organizations and our focal points in order to remedy this structural disadvantage.

Knowledge of, and hands-on experience in, American political life is another prerequisite. After more than two decades of self-imposed exclusion from American civil society, there is a knowledge gap in our community in regard to decision-making processes in the United States. The legislative process is quite complex and the value of contacts on "the inside" for the development of early-warning systems is crucial. These systems would have enabled our community to react to the first drafts of the Enhanced Border Security Act and affect its outcome from a very early stage. NIAC will be addressing this problem by organizing work-shops for our community organizations in which former lawmakers and lobbyists educate our community leaders on the intricacies of the legislative process, how to build up early warning systems and how to communicate the community's concern in the most effective way.

The potential of the Iranian-American community and our community organizations cannot be fulfilled until these prerequisites are first met. By focusing on these issues, NIAC aims to make the work of our community organizations more effective while enabling the self-representation of our community.


Trita Parsi is Acting President and Alex Patico is Secretary of the National Iranian-American Council in Washington DC.

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